The arts enrich lives, but are also beset with gross inequality

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A young man plays the guitar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If we pay attention to the enrichment of people’s lives, then the arts play a crucial role, because they go beyond money. Photo: UNDP DRC/Benoit Almeras-Martino

In the prelude to my book The Creative Wealth of Nations, I begin by saying that I grew up in two worlds. But honestly, part of me wanted to say something more accurate: I grew up leading a double life because my circumstances, and those of many others, didn’t fit neatly into the boxes where we tend to place them; poverty in one, and wealth in the other, or development here, and underdevelopment there.

While I was drenched in material deprivation, I was also steeped in cultural wealth. The latter manifested itself in music. Indeed, as economic and political upheavals rocked my native Uganda, it was music that kept my spirits high, giving me life-long skills that I gained while trying my hand at the piano and the organ, on instruments that left a great deal to be desired.

Ignoring the arts’ non-material benefits

When I received a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School in New York City 1998, this was a break for my mother who thought I was destined to starve to death, because of the prevailing belief that there’s no money in the arts. There is truth to that. That metric, however, has two problems. First, it ignores the non-material benefits the arts provide, which in turn can even engender economic outcomes. Second, it perpetuates the notion that, unlike superstars, ordinary artists don’t deserve much, because what they do is “fluff” or “a luxury”. The second of these can have implications for issues, including the perpetuation of inequality, as people in fields deemed less important — from the arts and teaching, to small scale farming — are often undervalued and underpaid. Yet if we even consult the oft-elevated subject of mathematics, it can tell us that the calculus in which we only have a world full of accountants, doctors, economists, engineers, financial managers, lawyers, scientists, and the like, doesn’t add up.

But 1998 was also special for another reason: It was the year the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who has relentlessly argued the need to value areas like the arts not just in material but also in non-material terms, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. As a beneficiary of music’s economic and non-economic enrichment, it was only natural that I’d be influenced by Sen’s ideas, which populated my thesis on music and international trade at The Fletcher School. What’s more, Sen’s collaboration with Mahbub ul Haq, who was not only an economist but also “a great reader of literature and poetry” and a “rare combination of thinker-doer,” drew my attention to the world of human development, and I cannot but concur with UNDP’s first Human Development Report’s conclusion that “people are the real wealth of nations.”

Inclusion and social justice in the arts

Given that premise, it was a pleasure to contribute research to the 2015 report on work for human development and to the 2019 one on inequality in the 21st century. And I was delighted to present a seminar at UNDP’s Human Development Office on October 25th to discuss my book and inequality in the arts. The seminar followed the previous day’s General Assembly Second Committee Side-event on UN Day, where we discussed “Emerging models of economic activities,” with themes of inclusion and social justice. That linkage allowed me to preface that if human development is about “expanding the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy in which human beings live,” then we cannot remain fixated on the expansion of material means while paying scarce attention to the enrichment of people’s lives. And if we pay attention to the enrichment of people’s lives, then the arts play a crucial role, because they go beyond money.

That noted, the arts are unfortunately beset with acute levels of inequality. As the economist Alan Krueger has said, if you want to understand the problem of inequality and how technology and globalization enable this, look no further than the music industry. Since inequality is rarely examined through an artistic lens, it may well be worth creating a Cultural Inequality Index.

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The arts are unfortunately beset with acute levels of inequality. Photos left to right: 24ox24 on pixabay.com; mTaira/Shutterstock.com

This came to my attention when I was preparing the background paper for the Human Development Report 2019, as I’ve previously suggested the creation of the cultural trade and cultural exchange indices. Indices, even the Human Development Index, have their limitations. Nonetheless, they can help us tackle some questions. The index’s basic function would be to indicate inequality between and within the arts, examining areas running from income inequality and gender bias, to access to arts education and cultural representation.

A Cultural Inequality Index is not something that can easily be done tomorrow. Thinking about its creation nevertheless might bring us to consider why we need a corrective on inequality in the arts. This is especially important because the arts aren’t just art for arts’ sake; they can uplift people’s lives, as I can attest that music did with my own.

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Noor, 24, an aspiring artist created a painting exhibition for 17 young women living in Anbar, Iraq to “paint their peace,” she says. The arts aren’t just art for arts’ sake; they can uplift people’s lives.

Patrick Kabanda is the author of The Creative Wealth of Nations (Cambridge 2018), with a foreword by Amartya Sen.

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